Escaped Yazidi say 4000 of their women and girls are in the hands of Isis

April 7, 2015 11:37 am

“I
thought maybe I could flee without Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ]
seeing me, but perhaps I would be caught and would have to stay there,”
says Amel (an alias, meaning “hope” in Kurdish, to protect her
identity). Short, with a round face and light wavy, hair, she tells her
story in a quiet but determined voice.

“I had many bad thoughts.”

 Yazidis say 4000 of their women and girls are in the hands of Isis. File photo / AP

Evening deepened over the Islamic State-held city of as
Amel, 18, and Jwan, 17, peered out of the window of a two-storey villa,
watching the passing cars and wondering how they would escape unseen.
“If I’m martyred,” their Isis captor had told them before he went out to
fight, “you will die in this house because I have locked the door.”
The
girls scoured the cupboards for anything that might help them; Jwan
grabbed a small, jewelled watch left by the house’s previous owners, a
family displaced when Isis took control of the city last year.
“I
thought maybe I could flee without Daesh [the Arabic acronym for Isis]
seeing me, but perhaps I would be caught and would have to stay there,”
says Amel (an alias, meaning “hope” in Kurdish, to protect her
identity). Short, with a round face and light wavy, hair, she tells her
story in a quiet but determined voice.

“I had many bad thoughts.”
Using a stolen phone, the
girls called their families. “We can break the door open,” Amel told her
relatives, “but we don’t know where to go.” Their families sent a
driver who circled the city, looking for them; as soon as the girls were
able to speak to him via the phone, they acted: “We looked for a knife
and broke the lock on the door.” After 20 days in Mosul and a week in
Fallujah, they were free.
They were driven to a safe house,
before being hidden in the driver’s house the next day. But this was
only the beginning. The recovery process for Amel and Jwan will be much
longer and harder.
The girls are part of the Yazidi minority
religion whose faith shares elements of Islam, Christianity and
Zoroastrianism, and whose adherents worship an angel in the form of a
peacock. Hundreds of thousands of Yazidis live in northern , home to
the holy, conically domed temple in Lallish; last summer, Isis branded
them pagans, singling them out for murder, rape and enslavement as they
tore through the region.
While the world’s media focused on the
plight of the tens of thousands of Yazidis trapped on Sinjar mountain,
Amel, Jwan (also an alias) and many other Yazidi women and girls were
captured by men loyal to Isis, who bragged in a propaganda video about
enslaving them. One man said to camera, “Today is the slave market, God
willing.” Amel’s story is one of many told by her community of
displacement, horror and slavery. Yazidis say 4000 of their women and
girls are in the hands of Isis. Raped and abused, many have also been
forced to marry and to convert to Islam.
On
the day of their capture, in early August last year, Amel and Jwan had
gathered under the shade of trees with their relatives a few miles from
Tel Azer, a small town near Sinjar in Iraq’s north-west. It was hot, and
Amel and her older brother Khero had been walking hand-in-hand,
chatting. “Families came to the trees and the water near the farms to
drink and wash,” recalls Jwan’s older brother, Haso. Then, just before
noon, a group of bearded fighters stormed the resting families. They
were tall and spoke in Arabic. Amel says that at first, “They told us
they wouldn’t do anything to us. ‘We will just bring you to a house,’
they said.”
The Isis fighters separated the women from the men.
“They took my brother,” says Amel. “He called out to me; I tried not to
cry. He wanted to save me.” Khero had married six months earlier. His
wedding photo shows him with a loosened collar and red tie, reaching out
to touch the cheek of his wife. “Later, my mother found him with many
other dead men,” says Amel, looking down. “She tried to talk to him but
he didn’t respond.”
From Tel Azer, Amel and Jwan were taken with
around 50 other women and girls to Mosul, Iraq’s second-biggest city,
where last summer Isis’s leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, declared a
caliphate stretching across plundered parts of Iraq and . Inside a
large, uncomfortable house, the girls were divided into groups. “For 20
days I didn’t go outside or see the sun or have any fresh air,” Amel
says. She lost count of how many others were there. When fighters came
to take Jwan away, she cried and asked for Amel. Together, they were
given as gifts to Isis fighters in Fallujah.
Abu Hassan and Abu
Jaffa, who Amel says was an Isis commander, left the house every evening
to fight. “We were given food once a day and little drinking water. We
couldn’t sleep because we were scared.” The girls were raped in the same
room as each other, Amel adds quietly. “Sometimes I’d cry… I’d say,
‘I don’t like it here,’ but Abu Hassan said: ‘If you say that, I will
separate you from Jwan. If you want to be freed, call your father and
mother, tell them to convert to Islam and after that I will give you
back.'”
On escaping their captors, the girls wore long black
abayas and niqabs and travelled to Baghdad, where they were reunited
with other Yazidis before flying home to the Kurdistan region. Jwan’s
mother recalls being reunited with her daughter: “I couldn’t stand up
and walk, I was so happy.” Her father bought a sheep to slaughter, in
celebration.
At home, the girls faced new challenges: their
families live in camps for the displaced where rumours and teasing are
rife. Yazidi culture is fiercely traditional; those who convert to other
religions are cast out. But because of the scale of this new trauma,
Yazidi leaders have publicly embraced escapees from Isis captivity who
in many cases have been raped, tortured and forced to convert to Islam.
“We know these women were forced [to convert] so we respect them. They
didn’t give consent,” Ido Baba Sheikh, the brother of Baba Sheikh, the
Yazidi spiritual leader, has said.
After her return, Amel would
faint when asked to retell her story. She did not return to school, too
haunted by what she had been through. Compounding her sadness, she says
other Yazidis in the camp “speak badly about me; they say I am not good,
that I am not a virgin”. Amel and Jwan did not know each other well
before their ordeal, but afterwards kept in close contact, calling or
texting each other every day.
Five months on, Amel is in a small
town north of Mosul to meet Baba Sheikh. It is evening, and few remain
in the courtyard of his home. He wears white robes and sits cross-legged
at the end of a long room where Yazidis come to pay their respects.
Amel kisses his hand and asks his advice on dealing with the unkind
remarks. He tells her to be brave and strong.
The next day,
cloaked by the chill of dawn, Amel pads in stockinged feet into the
large hall of the Lallish temple. There is snow on the surrounding
mountains and here in the base of the valley, the stone paving slabs
outside are slippery and damp. She kneels and kisses the holy threshold.
Her thoughts are constantly drawn to Sinjar and to what she has lost.
“I think about when we used to go to the temple. I remember the road
from Sinjar to my home,” she smiles, and tells me about a recent trip to
Sinjar Mountain on a road retaken from Isis. “It was like going back
home, but I remembered all the bad experiences because I was very
close.” Before she left for the two-day trip, her mother worried about
losing her again, “Please come back safely, otherwise I can’t live,” she
told Amel.
A month later, Amel is waiting in the lobby of a
five-star hotel in Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan region. Her hands are
adorned with small golden rings and she wears a loose-fitting, green
and white polka-dot blouse. She is setting out for Stuttgart, where she
will receive permanent residency, education, and medical and
psychological help, under an initiative for traumatised Yazidi girls and
women introduced by the German state of Baden-Württemberg. Jwan will go
with her to receive the same care.
At 5ft, Amel looks lost among
the German officials and minders in the hotel’s restaurant, as she sips
water and shows me her jewellery. To the tinkling of teacups as the
buffet trays are packed away, she says that, “I want to go to school, to
see [Germany], the people.” But, she adds, if her parents miss her too
much, she will return to Kurdistan.
Sitting up, she says she is
not afraid of the journey ahead. “Before, I was sometimes scared of
things in life. Now, after this torture, I am not scared of anything.”
Yet later, showing me Khero’s wedding pictures, she breaks down into her
small, cupped hands; her bravado slips away and she is a scared child
again, traumatised and on the cusp of an immense journey.
As soon
as they returned from their ordeal, the girls went to Lallish to be
blessed and cleansed in the holy spring below the temple. Inside, Amel
bent down in the dank, underground chamber and doused herself four
times. “I prayed,” she says now. “I said this is not our fault. We are
not guilty. It is because of Daesh, and we tried our best. I asked for
forgiveness.”

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